My first encounter with the Maccabees involved opening a box of Barton’s Chocolates: I was seven years old. There they lay, flat little Jewish soldiers wrapped in blue-and-gold foil, smiling smugly, each one brandishing a sword and a shield emblazoned with a Star of David, ready to take on the fiercest foes—also, presumably, made of chocolate. Hardly a sentimentalist, I wasted no time: humming “I had a little dreidel, I made it out of clay,” I unwrapped my doughty little warrior and bit his head off. Barton’s chocolate was very Jewish: it refused to melt in your mouth, and only a few strong chews made it palatable enough to swallow.
Later in my life, there were the heady days of the 1960s, when Judaism, like most American Religions, was finding ways to adapt to the heady aura of Liberalism. Rabbis were heading south to join the struggle for civil rights; Jewish college students, like their gentile comrades-in-arms, were marching against the war in Vietnam, and even we busy Yeshiva High School boys were being bused to midtown Manhattan—during school hours!—to picket the Soviet Mission to the United Nations. We truly cared about our Soviet brothers and sisters, but it didn’t hurt that we were marching within sight of the young ladies of our Orthodox sister school, Manhattan Central High School for Girls. Though we could see them but from afar, the young maidens of Central Yeshiva made our manly hearts beat a bit faster, as we walked around and around and around, chanting
“One-two-three-four—open up the Iron Door!
“Five-six-seven-eight—let my people emigrate!”
Oh, we were dedicated, we were, and we hated the Soviets with a passion. We had no idea what a Russian apparatchik looked like, but we despised them.
When Chanukah came, we learned that the Maccabees of long ago had, like us, fought for religious freedom: had the Kremlin existed in 165 BCE, barring the doors against our Russian brothers and sisters, forbidding them from learning Judaism and praying in Hebrew, or receiving precious gifts of tefillin and prayerbooks with Russian translation, we never doubted that Judah Maccabee and his bold troops would have taken swords in hand and beaten down the barricades of refusal. Just like us, the Maccabees were religious liberals, fighting the powers of segregation, ignorance, racism, and an unjust war in Vietnam. Our fight was their fight, as well.
Today, I am not so sure. Having read the First and Second Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha—called in Hebrew the Sefarim Ha-Chitzoniyim, literally, “The Outside Books,” meaning those books which were not accepted into the Hebrew Biblical Canon when the Talmudic Rabbis decided which books should be included, which not—I realize now that the Maccabees, far from being the religious mavericks I had taken them to be in my youth, were, instead, conservatives, holding on tenaciously to time-honored ancestral practices, when many upper-class Jews with names like Jason and Menelaus were deliberately aping Greek ways as The Next Big, Popular Thing. It was called Hellenism.
These strange, outlandish, and downright un-Jewish practices included wrestling naked in the Greek gymnasia; learning Greek philosophy, which doubted the existence, not only of our Jewish God, but of any god whatsoever; and, horror of horrors! Undergoing a painful and disfiguring operation on one’s phallus to eradicate the traces of circumcision and make it look more Greek. The enemy of the Chanukah story was, therefore, not the Greeks: it was other, trendier Jews.
Against this veritable tidal wave of assimilation arose the Maccabees, to preserve their vision of Judaism. Their forceful campaign included kidnapping Jewish babies in order to circumcise them, killing the Jews who followed Greek ways, and, of course, removing the “Abomination of Desolation”—the statue of Antiochus IV Epiphanes from the Holy Temple, which the monarch had placed therein, identifying himself with Zeus, king of the gods—hardly an unusual step for any Greek monarch.
The Maccabees succeeded in establishing a monarchy which kept Judea independent for about 500 years, before Imperial Rome turned it into a Mediterranean backwater colony. The last Maccabee brother, and the oldest, was Shimon, known as Simon in Greek. He was proud, and combined in his person the dual offices of both kohen gadol, High Priest, and ethnarch, regional ruler. The question remains, however: were the Maccabees liberals or conservatives?
Does it really matter at this point? History is a river: it flows endlessly, and we can interpret it only up to a point. What matters is that we derive what we need from it. As Jews and students of Western Civilization, we combine the best of what our faith, our culture, and Greek and Roman civilization have left us. I like to think that, when those tired, sweaty Jewish warriors watched the last remnants of Antiochus’s army retreating, stumbling, defeated, from the Temple Mount, they were thinking, “Our Torah, our way of life, is safe.” Their struggle remains ours, and the struggle goes on, forever.